I hate the Los Angeles Dodgers. My childhood sojourns to Miller Park typically coincided with Kershaw on the mound (and thus excruciating 1-0 losses). More importantly, though, they consistently have one of the highest payrolls in the MLB. Their top players include the likes of Freddie Freeman and Mookie Betts, who were lured to the Dodgers by
the beauty of Los Angeles gobs of cash. As a result, in their 2022 campaign they racked up a squeaky clean 111 wins, leaving them in a tie for the fourth-most ever.
They were then summarily sent home after losing three out of four games to the 89-win San Diego Padres.
As much as it pains me to say it, I feel sorry for them.
They won more than two out of every three games during the regular season, but were sent packing due to a grand total of four games. They had a historically good season and it ended in the blink of an eye. And they didn’t even lose to a plucky upstart - the Padres have also thrown bougie cupcakes at the proverbial wall.
I want to ruminate on this mismatch between the regular season and the playoffs. Across the MLB, NBA, MLS, and NFL (which, as a side note, have considerable acronymic overlap), I’ll discuss the main factors at play in determining the length of playoff series, as well a key another factor that should play more of a role.
Let’s start with a recap of the current regular season and playoff structures. The NBA, as we know, consists of an 82-game regular season followed by four best-of-seven series. The NFL involves a 17-game regular season, the MLS involves a 34-game regular season, and both conclude with four one-off “series” (i.e., games) where the top seed in each conference receives a bye. The MLB plays a god-awful 162 games in the regular season, and it (currently) includes *checks notes, takes breath* a round of best-of-three series, a round of best-of-five series (including the top two seeds in each conference), and two rounds of best-of-seven series.
One trend is immediately clear: leagues with shorter regular seasons (NFL, MLS) play one-off games in the playoffs and league with longer regular seasons (NBA, MLB) typically play best-of-seven series in the playoffs. This is probably due to the physicality of the sports. On a per-game basis, football and soccer are more punishing than baseball and basketball. Football is fundamentally violent, and many complain about non-Sunday games because they involve less recovery time. Soccer is both a sprint and a marathon, and teams typically play no more than twice per week. Basketball is certainly more strenuous than baseball - that’s why it plays half as many regular season games - and players feel it during SEGABABA’s, but SEGABABA’s are at least feasible on occasion.
All told, it seems that playoff structure takes player welfare into account. That seems abundantly fair.
There are other factors at play too. Because they do not face the same physical demands as football and soccer, basketball and baseball are not financially incentivized to shorten their playoff series. Conversely, football stadiums are so huge that they make plenty of money, even from single games. Additionally, in baseball, financial conditions dovetail with weather constraints. Baseball owners desire a long regular season to make money from as many home games as possible, but Mother Nature discourages games early and late in the year - perhaps explaining why, despite having a longer regular season than basketball, it has a shorter playoffs.
But baseball owners only desire a longer regular season because the money stays in their own pockets - unlike in football, soccer, and (kinda) basketball. Tyler Kepner recently wrote that, in baseball, shorter playoff series level the playing field for teams that are closer to the basement than the penthouse. To me, this is merely a bandaid on structural inequality, and it belies the fact that the beneficiaries of this system are more often teams like the Padres than teams like the Brewers. However, it also hits at a deeper question: is the point of the playoffs that the best teams win, or that the best teams lose?
This is a political question. For me, the answer is the former. I fully understand the urge to slay Goliath. But I think that primarily stems from Goliath eating Wheaties when David gets sawdust. If all teams start from a level playing field, we won’t necessarily support consistently good teams, but there is a grudging respect that comes with knowledge that they are not simply buying the crown.
Regardless of your take on this question, I think that the factor that should play more of a role in designing playoff structure is my old friend luck. Statistically, lower-scoring sports are more susceptible to the whims of luck - think a soccer game with one goal or an 18-inning baseball game with one freaking run. Yet the MLS playoffs are a series of one-off games and baseball plays shorter series in the first two rounds of the playoffs. NFL games are slightly higher scoring, at least, but still consist of single games.
Ironically, the NBA has both the highest scoring games and the longest playoffs. Perhaps this explains my affinity for basketball; whether we like it or not, the best teams typically win. Crucially, that is only good if the best teams are dealt the same cards as everyone else - which is increasingly not the case.
To conclude, there are a lot of factors that shape the structure of the regular season and particularly the playoffs across major men’s sports leagues. However, there seems to be less attention to luck, and by extension the question of whether we want the best teams to win. Across these leagues, there are varying degrees of misalignment between the likelihood that the best team wins a given game and the length of playoff series. That creates a marketplace where people can choose arenas with different likelihoods Goliath will fall - but also, for those who believe that the best teams should win, frustration when legitimate Goliaths have the cards stacked against them. By coupling high-scoring games and consistently long playoff series, basketball stacks the cards in such a manner - which is good news if you’re the only undefeated team remaining.